Radical media, politics and culture.

Bifo reviews 'Dark Fiber' by Geert Lovink

hydrarchist writes, this review as published in the second edition of the Make World Magazine. "For many years, Geert Lovink has carried out his work as net-critic
wandering across the territories where the net meets the economy,
politics, social action and art. Years of fast writing on mailing lists,
analysis, polemics, replies and reports have been collected and
elaborated in a way that maintains the rap-style of e-mail debates:
short sentences, ironic slogans, cuts and returns, allusions, cita-tions...
but what emerges from this mosaic is a coherent overall
view on the first decade of digital society.

Dark Fiber

Franco Bifo Berardi

This book is the first complete investigation of
global netculture, an analysis of the evolution
and involution of the web during the first decade
of its mass expansion. But Lovink goes beyond a
sociological, economic and anthropological survey.
Many of the essays in the book outline the
theoretical positions of various agents in the cyber-
cultural scene: Wired's libertarian ideology,
its economistic and neoliberal involution, and the
radical pessimism of European philosophers.
Outside of such confrontation, Geert's position is
that of a radical and pragmatic Northern-Europe-an
intellectual close to autonomist and cyber-punk
movements, who has animated the cyber-cultural
scene for a decade with his polymorphous activity as writer and moderator of
connective environments such as nettime.org,
and as organiser of international meetings.

This book has been published almost simultaneously
in the United States and in Italy, it will
soon come out in a Spanish and a Japanese edition.
Its publication is exceptionally timely, coinciding
with an unprecedented storm in the global
economic system. In the middle of the storm, in
the eye of the cyclon sits the system of webs that
multiplied the energies of mass capitalism in the
90s, and that today finds itself on the threshold
of a radical redefinition of perspectives. The economic
crisis can only be fully explained in relation to the ideological crisis of the new economy
that supported the mass capitalism of the 90s.
Similar to Carlo Formenti's 'Mercanti del futuro',
Einaudi, this book helps us analyze the actual interlacement
of web and economy, and to get a
glimpse of what is to come. The 1987 Wall Street
crash interrupted the booming cycle that had
characterized the first affirmation of Reagan's
monetarist and neoliberal policies. During the
storm that upset the markets for several weeks,
(nothing in comparison to the one to come between
2000 and 2002), analysts offered an interesting
explanation: part of the international financial
system was being modernized and
connected to the internet. Long before the inter-net
entered everyday life, some sectors of inter-national
finance had started to make their information
systems interdependent in real time.

However, since not all of the international financial
system was interconnected - so the experts
claimed - the gaps and the incompatibility of the
systems of communication disturbed the fluidity
of exchanges and prevented a fast and coordinated
intervention of American banks. In order to
avoid a reoccurrence of these delays in coordination,
the informatization of finance and the pervasiveness
of systems of telecommunication
needed to be perfected. This is what happened in
the following years. In the 90's the circuit of in-
formation and financial exchanges was so spread
as to allow a capillary and mass participation to
the flux of financial investments. The web became
the principal support of mass capitalism and sustained
its long expansive phase in the last decade
of the century. Millions of Americans and
Europeans started to invest their money, buying
and selling shares from their own homes. The
whole financial system became tightly interconnected.
Today that long expansive phase has entered
into a crisis, and we see that, contrary to
1987, in fact the main danger for the global system
is the pervasive character of its connections.

Self-organization of producers

The Web, this fantastic multiplier of popular participation
to the market, risks becoming the multiplier
of its crisis, and the point of flight from the
mediatic-financial system of control. But there is
another side to the process. Due to mass participation
in the cycle of financial investment in the
90s, a vast process of self-organization of cognitive
producers got underway. Cognitive workers
invested their expertise, their knowledge and
their creativity, and found in the stock market the
means to create enterprises. For several years,
the entrepreneurial form became the point where
financial capital and highly productive cognitive
labor met. The libertarian and liberal ideology
that dominated the (American) cyberculture of
the 90s idealized the market by presenting it as
a pure, almost mathematical environment. In this
environment, as natural as the struggle for the
survival of the fittest that makes evolution possible,
labor would find the necessary means to valorize
itself and become enterprise.

Once left to its own dynamic, the reticular economic
system was destined to optimise economic
gains for everyone, owners and workers, also
because the distinction between owners and
workers would become increasingly imperceptible
when one enters the virtual productive circuit.
This model, theorised by authors such as Kevin
Kelly and transformed by the Wired magazine in
a sort of digital-liberal, scornful and triumphalist
Weltanschauung, went bankrupt in the first couple
of years of the new millennium, together with
the new economy and a large part of the army of
self-employed cognitive entrepreneurs who had
inhabited the dotcom world. It went bankrupt be-cause
the model of a perfectly free market is a
practical and theoretical lie. What neoliberalism
supported in the long run was not the free market,
but monopoly. While the market was idealised
as a free space where knowledges, expertise
and creativity meet, reality showed that the
big groups of command operate in a way that far
from being libertarian introduces technological
automatisms, imposing itself with the power of
the media or money, and finally shamelessly robbing
the mass of share holders and cognitive labour.
The free market lie has been exposed by the
Bush administration. Its policy is one of explicit
favouritism for monopolies (starting with the
scandalous absolution of Bill Gates' authority in
exchange for a political alliance based on large
electoral donations). It is a protectionist policy
that imposes the opening of markets to weak
states while allowing the United States to impose
40% import taxes on steel. With Bush's victory,
the libertarian and liberal ideology has been defeated
and reduced to a hypocritical repetition of
banalities devoid of content.


Geert Lovink does not dwell on American liberal
ideology, the defeated enemy. Instead, he invites
us to understand what happened at the level of
production in the years of dotcom-mania. We
have no reason to cheer over the dotcom crash,
he says. The ideology that characterised dotcom
mania was a fanatical representation of obligatory
optimism and economistic fideism. But the
real process that developed in these years contains
elements of social as well as technological
innovation: elements that we should recuperate
and re-actualise. In the second half of the 90s a
real class struggle occurred within the productive
circuit of high technologies. The becoming of the
web has been characterised by this struggle. The
outcome of the struggle, at present, is unclear.
Surely the ideology of a free and natural market
turned out to be a blunder. The idea that the market
functions as a pure environment of equal confrontation
for ideas, projects, the productive
quality and the utility of services has been wiped
out by the sour truth of a war monopolies have
waged against the multitude of self-employed
cognitive workers and against the slightly pathetic
mass of microtraders.

The struggle for survival was not won by the best
and most successful, but by the one who drew his
gun out. The gun of violence, robbery, systematic
theft, of the violation of any legal and ethical
norm. The Bush-Gates alliance sanctioned the
liquidation of the market, and at that point the
phase of the internal struggle of the virtual class
ended. One part of the virtual class entered the
techno-military complex, another part, the large
majority, was expelled from the enterprise and
pushed to the margins of explicit proletarianization.
On the cultural plane, the conditions for the
formation of a social consciousness of the cognitariat
are emerging, and this could be the most
important phenomenon of the years to come, the
only key to offer solutions to the disaster. Dot-coms
were the training laboratory for a productive
model, and for a market. In the end the market
was conquered and suffocated by
monopolies, and the army of self employed entrepreneurs
and venture microcapitalists was
robbed and dissolved.

Thus a new phase began: the groups that became
predominant in the cycle of the net-economy
forge an alliance with the dominant group of the
old-economy (the Bush clan, representative of
the oil and military industry), and this phase signals
a blocking of the project of globalisation.
Neoliberalism produced its own negation, and
those who were its most enthusiastic supporters
become its marginalized victims. The main focus
of this book is the Internet. What has it been,
what has it become and especially what will it
be? A discussion, starting in the mid-90's,
opened gaps within cyberculture and divided the
theoretical and creative paths of its various
agents. As soon as the internet became more diffuse
and revealed cultural, technical and common
synergies, the advertisers and traders arrived
with their entourage of profit fanatics.
Naturally, they only had one question: can the Internet
become a money-making machine? The
'experts' (who then amounted to a multicolored
bunch of artists, hackers and techno-social experimentators)
replied in Sibylline ways. The Californian
digerati of Wired replied that the Internet
was destined to multiply the power of capitalism,
to open vast immaterial markets, and to upset
the laws of the economy, which predict crisis and
delays and decreasing incomes and falls of profit.
Nobody really refuted these people. Net-artists
and media activists had other things to do, and
their criticisms and reservations came across as
the lament of the losers, who are incapable of entering
the big club. Digerati, cyberpunk digital visionaries,
and net artists let the bubble grow. The
money that entered into web circuits was useful
to develop any kind of technological, communicative
and cultural experimentation.

Funky business

Someone called it the funky business. Creative
labor found a way to scrounge money from a
whole host of fat, obese and small capitalists.
The truth is that nobody (or very few) said that
the Internet was not a money-making machine. It
has never been and it cannot be. Careful: this
does not mean that the web has nothing to do
with the economy. On the contrary, it has become
an indispensable infrastructure for the production
and the realization of capital, but this does
not mean that its specific culture can be reduced
to the economy. The Internet has opened a new
chapter in the processes of production. The dematerialization
of the commodity, the principle of
cooperation, and the unbreakable continuity between
production and consumption have made
the traditional criteria of definition of the value of
commodities redundant. Whoever enters the web
does not see him- or herself as a client, but as a
collaborator, hence, he/she does not want to
pay. AOL, Microsoft and all the other sharks can
do what they like, but they won't be able to
change this fact that is not just a rather anarchoid
cultural trait, but the core of the digital labour
relation. We should not think that the Inter-net
is an extravagant island where the principle of
valorisation that dominates the rest of human relations
enters a crisis. On the contrary, the web
has created a conceptual opening that is destined
to grow larger.

The principle of freedom is not a marginal exception,
it can become the universal principle of access
to material and immaterial goods. With the
dotcom crash, cognitive labor has separated it-self
from capital. Digital artisans, who during the
90s felt like entrepreneurs of their own labour,
will slowly realize that they have been deceived,
expropriated, and this will create the conditions
for a new consciousness of cognitive workers. The
latter will realise that despite having all the productive
power, they have been expropriated of its
fruits by a minority of ignorant speculators who
are only good at handling the legal and financial
aspects of the productive process. The unproductive
section of the virtual class, the lawyers and
the accountants, appropriate the cognitive surplus
value of physicists and engineers, of chemists,
writers and media operators. But they can
detach themselves from the juridical and financial
castle of semiocapitalism, and build a direct
relation with society, with the users: then maybe
the process of autonomous self-organisation of
cognitive labor will begin.

This process is already underway, as the experiences
of media activism and the creation of net-works
of solidarity from migrant labour show.
Starting from these experiences, we need to re-think
the 19c question of the intellectual. In
Geert Lovink's book the question reemerges. His
portrait of the virtual intellectual, in the first section
of the book, is both a synthetic autobiography
and a description of the different intellectual
attitudes that characterized the formation of the
connective sphere. Between the 'organic' intellectual
of corporations, and the radical and nostalgically
humanistic pessimist (the dominant intellectual figures of the 90s), Lovink proposes the
figure of the net-critic, undogmatic and curious
about what happens while resistant to any form
of ideological and especially economic hegemony.
But more is at stake than a cultural fashion
that is counterposed to another. At stake is the
defection from the political scene that characterised
the XXth century, and the creation of a totally
different scenario. The XXth century was dominated
by the figure of the 'superstructural' intellectual,
to use an Engels, Leninist and Gramscian
formulation. For the revolutionary communist
movement, the intellectual was the pre-industrial
figure, whose function was determined on the basis
of a choice of organic affiliation with a social

The Leninist party is the professional formation of
intellectuals who chose to serve the proletarian
cause. Antonio Gramsci introduced decisive elements
of innovation to the Leninist conception,
because he introduced the theme of cultural hegemony,
of the specificity of a work of ideology to
develop in the process of seizing political power.
But Gramsci remained fundamentally attached to
an idea of the intellectual as an unproductive figure,
to an idea of culture as pure consensus with
ideological values. The industrialisation of culture
that developed during the 1900s modified these
figures, and critical thought realised this when it
migrated from Frankfurt to Hollywood. Benjamin
and Marcuse, Adorno and Horkheimer, Brecht
and Krakauer registered this passage. But it is
not until the digital web redefined the whole process
of production that intellectual labor assumed
the configuration that Marx had, in the
Grundrisse, defined with the expression of 'General
Intellect'. Pierre Levy calls it collective intelligence,
Derrick De Kerkhove points out that it actually
is a connective intelligence. The infinitely
fragmented mosaic of cognitive labour becomes
a fluid process within a universal telematic net-work,
and thus the shape of labour and capital
are redefined. Capital becomes the generalized
semiotic flux that runs through the veins of the
global economy, while labour becomes the constant
activation of the intelligence of countless
semiotic agents linked to one another. Retrieving
the concept of 'general intellect' in the 90s, Italian
compositionist thought (Paolo Virno, Christian Marazzi, Carlo Formenti) has introduced the
concept of mass intellectuality, and emphasized
the interaction between labor and language.
We needed to go through the dotcom purgatory,
through the illusion of a fusion beween labour
and capitalist enterprise, and then through the
hell of recession and endless war, in order to see
the problem emerge in clear terms. On the one
hand, the useless and obsessive system of financial
accumulation and a privatization of public
knowledge, the heritage of the old industrial
economy. On the other hand, productive labor increasingly
inscribed in the cognitive functions of
society: cognitive labor that starts to see itself as
a cognitariat, building autonomous institutions of
knowledge, of creation, of care, of invention and
of education that are autonomous from capital.

Agosto 2002 Bologna


Translated by Arianna Bove/Erik Empson"